TV chefs and their seafoodie fans rescue Britain's fishermen

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A NEW generation of affluent foodies has given new life to Britain's ailing fishing industry. Inspired by TV chefs such as Rick Stein, they are responsible for the first rise in fish sales for years.

But the new "seafoodies" have turned their back on haddock and cod. Shellfish such as clams, mussels, lobsters and crabs are being tucked away by diners as quickly as chefs at top restaurants can prepare them.

Lobster sales have doubled in the past five years to pounds 2m, according to the Sea Fish Industry Authority, while the amount of shellfish caught in British waters rose from 76,000 tonnes in 1985 to 135,000 tonnes last year, worth pounds 153m. Shellfish now account for a third of the total catch landed by British fishermen. Consumption of prawns topped pounds 100m for the first time this year - up 11 per cent since 1996. Fish is only outsold by chicken, having overtaken beef in 1994.

Smart fish restaurants are opening, especially in London, faster than you can shuck oysters. Tony Allan, chairman of Bank Group Restaurants, launched "Fish" in February, which he described as "the Pizza Express of the sea world", selling whole lobster and chips for pounds 15, while Livebait, decorated with black and white tiles and plenty of chrome, has expanded from its first base in Waterloo to branches in Covent Garden and Notting Hill.

The revival is largely a middle-class phenomenon. Many people still regard sea bass, monkfish and even tuna (unless it's tinned) with suspicion. The most popular dish at Harry Ramsden's chain of fish restaurants is still haddock and chips.

Mitchell Tonks, who runs a successful fish restaurant in Bath, says the key to weaning the public off haddock and cod is to demystify other species. "There's still this big mystery about what to do with other fish. People can be really stumped and unsure of what to do."

The public taste for shellfish has been mirrored by a trend among fishermen to catch greater numbers of crabs, lobsters and prawns. "It's an expanding industry," said Tim Oliver, editor of Fishing News. "Lobsters and crabs don't have the quota restrictions on the amount you can catch which cod and haddock have. A lot of fishermen have left that sector because they were sick and tired of the hassle." The fishermen have also been attracted by the substantial market in mainland Europe: it is estimated that European demand for seafood could outpace supply by more than 40 million tonnes by 2010. Fears are growing that overfishing is beginning to damage stocks of shellfish in the same way that it plagued haddock, cod, sea bass and plaice.

Statutory rules have been introduced in some regions to force fishermen to return pregnant lobsters to the water. Bernadette Clarke, fisheries officer with the Marine Conservation Society, said: "The problem is that any fisherman with a licence is entitled to catch as many shellfish as they want." Nephrops, or Dublin Bay prawns, were particularly vulnerable to overfishing by trawler boats, she said.

Mitchell Tonks decided to give up a well paid job with a London clothing company to run his fishmongers and restaurant in Bath. He was recently voted fishmonger of the year by Country Living magazine.

At cookery classes above his restaurant he encourages people to try more home-cooked tuna, sea bass and monkfish. He believes that the television celebrity chefs Keith Floyd and Rick Stein have been instrumental in slowly transforming the nation's tastebuds.

"Those two chefs made millions realise there was more to fish than battered cod and chips," he said. "It was amazing and a terrific boost for the business. It's the sort of thing you can't plan for, but it meant markets suddenly opened up for unusual fish."